The latest, in a series of local investigative reports led by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, found a higher-than-estimated asbestos-fiber count in one of the city’s public elementary schools. This news follows several similar reports from the last few months, which have placed Philadelphia public schools under intense scrutiny for potentially endangering faculty and students by exposing them to a number of environmental toxins, including lead and asbestos.
The investigation, dubbed the “Toxic City” series, revealed even more damaging information this June: In the Olney Elementary School in northeast Philadelphia, an extremely worrying amount of asbestos fibers were found on the school’s hallway floor. New testing revealed that, contrary to an estimation of 8.5 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter, 10.7 million asbestos fibers were identified instead.
To boot, the high asbestos count was discovered in one of the school’s most highly trafficked hallways. While the problem had been identified in February and environmental teams were sent immediately into the school to deal with the contamination, the asbestos-problem has only worsened since then. Needless to say, 10.7 million is a frighteningly high number — one that at, according to experts — is 100 times higher than the level that, on the asbestos scale, would normally be considered cause for concern.
Olney Elementary School: 1 Example of an Enormous Problem
Brought to light with the recent news regarding the School District of Philadelphia is the seldom-recognized national epidemic featuring the remnants of our country’s 20th century love affair with asbestos — a naturally occurring mineral that’s use was widespread in dozens of industries throughout the 1900s, from auto-maintenance and engineering, to shipbuilding, insulation, flooring, and roofing. Asbestos, thought then to be an industry “miracle” was highly touted for its inherent strength and natural fire-resistant properties.
What asbestos companies didn’t want people to know was that health science thought of asbestos much differently. Though the use of the mineral was widespread, it was in fact a cancer-causing carcinogen. While numerous studies and data demonstrated the correlation between asbestos and cancer, asbestos companies carried on using the harmful toxin anyway, hiding their knowledge of the risks from the American public.
Now of course we all know that the word “asbestos” is synonymous with “death.” In fact, recent reports suggest that asbestos may cause as many as 39,000 deaths per year – a figure that is more than double previous estimates. It’s the only known cause of the lung cancer mesothelioma, for which there is no cure. All it takes is the inhalation of a single fiber for a person to get mesothelioma; once an asbestos fiber is lodged in the pleural lining of one’s lungs, abdomen, or heart, the cancer is slow to spread, often taking 20-50 years. When mesothelioma is discovered, there is little hope for survival.
And yet, this is the very substance to which schools across America are exposing our children.
Why We Should All Care – and Act – Before It’s Too Late
It’s important to consider just how local this issue really is. Though the more recent accounts come out of Philadelphia, the reality is that the majority of schools across the country contain asbestos. Investigative reporting subjected 11 other elementary schools in Philadelphia to independent asbestos testing and found that 9 of the 11 schools had “concerning amounts of asbestos fibers.”
Were similar testing to be conducted in schools nationwide, no doubt Americans would be shocked to learn of the sheer volume of asbestos present in the majority of our public-school buildings – lurking in pipe wrap, insulation, and flooring and roofing tiles, among other materials.
A large part of this is due to the fact that many school buildings were constructed prior to 1980, the year when new safety measures were undertaken to lessen the pervasive use of asbestos. Even with post-1980 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations in place, which banned the use of asbestos in certain kinds of building materials, much of the damage had, unfortunately, already been done.
Philly School Moves forward, but Questions Linger
What actions will be taken with regards to the public health situation in Philadelphia? It remains to be seen. District spokesman Lee Whack has yet to respond to direct questioning regarding the next steps the city will take in response to the latest asbestos test results.
Whack, in an email, did note that the district will look “at the areas at Onley Elementary that have been monitored.” As for what exactly comes next, it’s really anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the innocent lives of Philadelphia children will continue to be put at needless risk day in and day out, while the local government figures out how best to deal with the toxic substance that’s been stealing American lives prematurely for generations.